We invited all outgoing Town Councilors to respond to questions and are posting the responses this week. Today we hear from Evan Ross of district 4.
What achievements during your term are you most proud of?
This first Council has a long list of achievements of which our entire community should be proud. The most prominent is the approval of the expansion and renovation project of the Jones Library. This vote will impact our community for generations, and touches so many of the stated goals and values of our community, from climate action to social justice. I am also proud of the actions we have taken to reinvest in our downtown and to establish our downtown as a destination. I am more optimistic about the future of our downtown now than I have been in a long time. From the performance shell on the Common (voted Dec. 2021), to the Kendrick Park playground (voted Dec. 2019), to an expanded and renovated Jones Library (voted April 2021), to streamlined permitting for outdoor dining (voted June 2020), to the renovation and restoration of our North Common (voted May 2021), to moving forward a new destination parking facility (voted Dec. 2021), to ending the prohibition on the sale of alcohol on the town commons (voted March 2020), this Council is responsible for renewed vibrancy in our downtown and consistently demonstrated a commitment investing in our downtown.
Finally, I am also proud of the work we did on housing. While there is much work to do, this Council took important steps to address our town’s housing crisis. The Council developed and approved by near-unanimous vote a Comprehensive Housing Policy. This document represents a public recognition that Amherst is facing a housing crisis and sets housing goals for our community that focus around production, affordability, diversity, and sustainability. The document also establishes an ambitious goal: minimum of 250 new units for households earning less than 80% Area Median Income (AMI) over the next five years, and minimum of 850 units above 80% AMI over the next five years. Consider that from 2010-2019, a ten-year period, Amherst built 663 new units. Reaching the goal of over 1,000 new units over the next five years is a major commitment by the Council to housing production and will take proactive efforts by subsequent Councils. This Council began that work both through its investment in affordable housing projects and through passage of progressive zoning amendments focused on housing affordability. Specifically, we strengthened inclusionary zoning, eased the permitting pathway for apartments in village centers, eased the permitting pathway for most Accessory Dwelling Units, and made parking minimums more flexible.
Any suggestions for reducing the workload?
Reducing the workload for Councilors is an important goal if we want to recruit new Councilors who represent and reflect the demographic diversity of our community. To some extent, the workload of the Council is what you make of it. Some Councilors choose to take up leadership roles, chair committees, write and introduce policies, and serve the Council as liaisons. Others read the packet, attend meetings, and vote. There is no wrong way to be a Councilor, and each Councilor can and should take on a workload that reflects their capacity. That said, here are some thoughts on reducing the workload:
Fewer agenda items. The Council has a lot of work ahead of it, and occasionally the president will need to post an agenda that folks will see and say “that’s too much!” But as general practice, the president should try to limit the number of agenda items to what they determine is reasonable for the Council to adjourn by 9 p.m. (which means the Council will actually adjourn by 10 p.m.).
Councilor comments. Councilors need to abide by the 3-minute cap on their comments. Some Councilors, and one in particular, consistently ignore this rule and will talk well over the cap. The president needs to enforce this rule.
Councilor questions. On some issues, Councilors were invited to review materials and send their questions in advance to relevant staff. In this way, the questions could be answered prior to the meeting and meeting time was not consumed by answering individual questions. This should be a more common practice but requires Councilors to be provided materials well enough in advance for them to read them, develop questions, and for staff to prepare responses to those questions prior to the meeting.
Public comment. Public comment can consume large amounts of meeting time. If there are 20 public commenters and each uses their full 3 minutes that is a full hour of Council time on public comment. Many public commenters email their comments to the Council in advance of the meeting, then show up and read their comments to the Council. We need to develop a public culture around the Council that recognizes the Council workload and acknowledges their role in reducing meeting times. The public should be encouraged to submit written comments via the Council comment portal and if they have provided written comments then refrain from taking up meeting time repeating those comments during public comment.
What are your hopes for the incoming Council?
My biggest hope is that they work together to make progress. With 13 Councilors, the ideas, priorities, and personalities will always conflict. Finding common ground isn’t always easy, and sometimes compromise feels like folding. But we need our town to continue moving forward, and that will require Councilors finding ways to collaborate and compromise. Housing is one of the most pressing issues facing our town, but also a space where the Council will likely be divided. Several Councilors ran (and won) on NIMBYism (Pam, Taub, Rooney). Others have consistently advocated for housing production and growth (Hanneke, Steinberg, Bahl-Milne). We can’t wait to tackle housing, which means Councilors from both sides of the spectrum will need to find ways to work together, find common ground, and compromise.
Most importantly on this front, I hope the Council will reject the false narrative that there are two sides or parties. The beginning of my term was consistently defined by folks invoking a narrative that it was the “Amherst Forward” majority versus the “Independents” minority. By the end of the term that narrative had fizzled. Folks noted shifting coalitions that varied by issue. The only Councilor who consistently maintained this false and damaging binary was Councilor DuMont. The 2020 election was a bit different. There were two political action committees. Two candidates were endorsed by both (Walker and Lopes). Two candidates were endorsed by neither (Rooney and Schoen). The narrative of two sides is breaking down and I hope the Councilors themselves will actively work to break it down. The concept of some Councilors as “independent” I hope will be left behind, too, as every Councilor is independent. Councilors (and the public) need to stop defining Councilors simply by who did or did not endorse them in an election, and call out how doing so damages and divides our community.